Take us by the hand, arts leaders, and tread softly

Childers St street sign

Who knew Mondrian designed the street signs in City West?

I half ran, half stumbled across Civic last Monday morning on my way to the Childers Group Arts Leadership Forum 2014  at the Canberra Theatre Centre and Canberra Museum and Gallery. I said hi to the Antler Girl as I scooted up Ainslie Avenue, and was splashed by icy spray from The Canberra Times Fountain.

Highly stylised and slightly disturbing sculpture of cute girl in floral tut with antlers on her head, called The Other side of Midnight, made by Anne Ross, on Civic Walk

That Crazy Antler girls says hi (detail of the sculpture ‘The Other Side of Midnight’ by Anne Ross), on City Walk

I thought I might be a few minutes  late, but the organisers had left plenty of time for registration and for participants to talk as they gathered. Phew! I was lucky enough to be sponsored by the Faculty of Arts and Design (FAD) at University of Canberra to attend as one of their students, and I didn’t want to miss a thing.

Canberra Times Fountain

The Canberra Times fountain – so glad it’s back on, I missed it

I am not an arts leader; let’s get that clear! But I have roamed around the arts in Canberra since 1987, participating in many ways, and loving every second of it, from being amazed by the (literal) fireworks of Splinters Theatre in Yarralumla Brickworks, to tearing down that fourth wall with Benita Tunks in our installation ‘Writing on the Wall’ in the multi-art-multi- media event, ‘Synchromesh’, at Jigsaw Theatre, to joining Dead Poets readings at Poetry at the Gods in the dead of winter.  I have found Canberra’s  arts community so welcoming and inclusive, especially when I first moved here.

Canberra is an interesting environment in terms of arts practice and enjoyment. It is a relatively small place and also relatively well resourced, and the home of major national collecting institutions and galleries, and always just a little under siege psychologically, a little bit edgy. The citizens of Canberra incur the dislike of the rest of the country, as where we live and work and make art is also where our country’s politicians wrangle each other in Parliament in the big house on (and under) the hill. We have a bad reputation because of this, even though most of us have little to do with the machinations of Parliament.

Like the spurned child in the playground, we make our own fun. And what great fun it is.

Canberra’s Centenary in 2013 was a big focus for arts activities, and our Skywhale now swims through the Australian skies singing of the wonder of her hometown and of the places she visits.

I think there is a sense of regrouping in the arts, a feeling of where to now? And in this climate of cut backs, and major changes in direction in so many areas, what sort of leadership do we need in the arts?  Leadership is a quality and practice whose elements are often interrogated, as leadership is key to the success, or at least the viability, of many organisations and businesses and communities.

So The Childers Group gathered together arts leaders to mull over the topic of leadership in the arts. They are an independent art forum, formed in November 2011, and advocates for the arts in this region.

I have decided instead of trying to condense my whole experience of the forum into one post, to reflect on it over a few. So expect more. It was such a rich afternoon  I will be buzzing with what it offered for quite awhile and I want to share some of what I observed. (In fact, I suspect FAD requires me to!)

As a writer I have a special interest in language and story, and my account of the forum is likely to  be influenced by this perspective. Though I saw friends and colleagues involved in writing, like Kelli-anne Bertram and David Vernon from the ACT Writers Centre, and       Jen Webb and Katie Hayne from The Centre for Cultural and Creative Research, (and at last met Rosanna Stevens from Scissors Paper Pen), and of course Nigel Featherstone who represents literature (among other things) so well in the Group itself, I was reminded writing is just one field in a wide and various art scene. But I did notice many references to the importance of language and story during the discussions, central concerns of the writer. (It is good to feel one’s skills may be useful.)

Canberra Theatre Centre

Canberra Theatre Center (with blossoms)

The first plenary session was held in the Canberra Theatre foyer. The speakers were    David Williams (Emeritus Professor), Harriet Elvin (CEO of the Cultural Facilities Authority) and David Fishel (Board Connect and Positive Solutions).

I was especially struck by Elvin’s reference to the Oxford English dictionary definition of a leader:

One who conducts, precedes as a guide, leads a person by the hand …

One who guides others in action or opinion; one who takes the lead in any business, enterprise, or movement …

The clarity but also the poignancy of leading a person by the hand, its gentle intimacy, but also its respectful quality, resonated with me, and I recognised something in it about my experiences of working with good leaders. I resisted the description ‘effective’ leader here, because I think the adjective ‘good’, also implies a moral and partly selfless dimension that for me is an aspect of the sort of leadership I admire. There is also a sense of travelling together.

To indicate the significance of the arts for our communities Elvin also quoted                 John F. Kennedy’s reflection inscribed on the Cultural Centre named after him. “I am certain that after the dust of centuries has passed over our cities, we, too, will be remembered not for victories or defeats in battle or in politics, but for our contribution to the human spirit.” This rhetoric (in its true sense) places art as part of our core, and is a reminder of our possibilities, of our best. (And, oh my gosh, look at that sentence structure! Exquisite.)

But let’s move from this height, to something very practical. I was impressed that as a leader, Elvin measures her own success by the success of her staff. It says it all, really. Oh, that all leaders should think this way.

She also examined what the arts sector had to offer business, rather than what business offered art. Generally the art sector excels at teamwork. It is an intrinsic part of the arts, getting a live performance together, a publication, a film, a concert, or an exhibition, requires extraordinary levels of cooperation and commitment. The arts also embrace ‘creative lateral solutions to problems’, and ‘creative partnerships,’ as it is always looking for ways to make the most of limited resources and to push the limits of what they can achieve and also sustain.

We are always, always tempted to focus mainly on funding and finances, and I was refreshed to find the conversations that afternoon circled around that eternal dilemma, but also widened to refocus on other goals, on innovative art practice, communication and enjoyment.

Elvin’s quote from a Yeats’ poem, He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven, was also apt, suggesting how to respond to the love and dedication and sometimes frustrations of arts workers for their work, and how leaders needed to be mindful of their staff’s aspirations and vision as well. I think leaders in general need to consider this (I glance to the hill).

‘Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.’

My walk back through Civic that night was with such a light step.

4 thoughts on “Take us by the hand, arts leaders, and tread softly

  1. Pingback: Take us by the hand, arts leaders, and tread softly | Tinseltown Times

  2. HI Sarah
    Thanks so much for this. As a relatively new inhabitant of Canberra I have yet to see the Other Side of Midnight (either as a sculpture of as a timeline!) so I was delighted to be introduced to it. I look forward to the next posts.
    cheers
    A

  3. Thanks Angelina! I am quiet obsessed by that sculpture! It is just on your right as you exit the Canberra Centre and walk towards the Canberra Theatre. On the weekend it usually has children draped all over it. Whenever I have been with a child playing on it they have tended to fall off or bump their head or hurt themselves! Oh public art! It’s so dangerous! In my mind it connects with the Carousel that is a little further along. The Carousel used to be in St Kilda, and my son’s grandmother remembers it from her childhood. I love these sort of connections. I hope you enjoy the public art in Civic and suburbs here. We are blessed.

  4. Pingback: Forum update 6: thank you, one and all, and some things to read | The Childers Group

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